This one was a long time coming. Dmitry Orlov's call-up in mid-November was designed to bring a spark to the struggling Washington Capitals, and it did a lot of that.
Orlov through his first 24 NHL games didn't look at all like an inexperienced defenseman who just came over from Russia last winter. He looked like a pro.
On Sunday, he finally put the puck in the net. It was his first career goal and proved to be the game-winner as the Caps beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 at Verizon Center for their third straight victory.
"I was waiting for this moment to come, and it finally came today. I'm just extremely happy that it happened today,"Orlov said through an interpreter. "I'm also happy this was a game-winning goal because we, as a team, won. We need to get the points, especially in the tight and difficult games like this. So obviously, the emotions are very positive."
With it, Washington moved into first place in the Southeast Division for the first time since Nov. 18. Since then, struggles cost Bruce Boudreau his job, but now Dale Hunter's team is atop the division.
"This is where we hope to be, I guess. And we're happy that we are where we are," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "And it's nice to see that we can have a season that everybody's saying is not very good and still be in a good spot."
An even better spot when they wake up Monday because of Orlov. In training camp, he impressed with a heavy shot that had no trouble getting through traffic, but it was believed the 20-year-old needed time to develop.
Try 15 games with the Hershey (AHL) before he got the tap on the shoulder and promotion to the Capitals on Nov. 20. He has been a dependable and indispensable part of the Washington blue line ever since.
Orlov talked about managing the risk-reward part of his game, but it wasn't hard to tell that the reins were on him in his first call-up. He didn't jump up into the play too much and was judicious when coming up with a big hit.
Then there was the booming shot that Orlov had trouble hitting the net with. So Sunday, he used a little bit of old-fashioned hustle to score from a few feet away.
"We talk about that shot all the time in practice and in games when he lets it go," Alzner said. "I'm sure he's going to score a few like that, but that's a good goal, too."
Orlov crashed the net very early in the third period and was in perfect position when left wing Jason Chimera's shot bounced off Carolina goaltender Cam Ward's right pad. Orlov threw the puck back on goal, banking it off Ward and into the net.
"The puck landed in my skate and on my stick, and I just shot the puck off of the guy's back," Orlov said. "It was a very weird angle; it felt like I was almost behind the net when it happened."
At that point, it would have been impossible to wipe the smile off his face. He did a celebration reminiscent of one Wayne Gretzky did after many of his 894 goals.
The Hurricanes poured on the offense — especially after Orlov's goal. Carolina finished the game with a majority of the third-period scoring chances and held a 444-24 advantage in shots.
But Tomas Vokoun, making his ninth straight start, made 43 saves as the Caps moved to 3-0 on the homestand — all against opponents who played the night before.
At the start, the Caps looked like the tired team, sleepwalking through much of a scoreless first period while the Hurricanes dominated puck possession.
Early in the second, the Caps had something to show for this game despite struggles, as Brooks Laich appeared to score his first since Dec. 23. But it was reviewed and disallowed; officials declined comment afterward, though Hunter said he was told it was reversed because of "incidental contact with the goalie."
"If that's the case, then I don't know why there's a review of the goal," Laich said. "There's good breaks and bad breaks, and you live life and move on."
The Caps still scored first, extending that streak to seven straight home games, as Alexander Semin blasted one past Ward. But they couldn't hold the lead for long, surrendering yet another goal in the last minute of a period, a disturbing trend for a team that need points at home badly given its struggles on the road.
Orlov made sure they would get these two points and move atop the division for the first time during the defenseman's time in the NHL.
"It was a big goal. I'm sure Orly is pretty excited. It was his first goal, but it was a big goal," Laich said. "We needed to get this hockey game. It was kind of in limbo a little bit. They were hanging around, and we needed to get the two points."
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